Emmanuel Amuneke earning his stripes on the continent
In March, history was made in Tanzanian football. For the first time in 39 years, the senior national team qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), beating Uganda in Dar es Salaam by three unrivalled goals in the final qualifying match.
The joy, the sheer weight of the achievement, is one that has taken some time for the modest nation to grasp, according to Coach Emmanuel Amuneke. Only when the draws for the competition took place amid the lights and pyramids of Egypt did it really dawn on them that they would be experiencing the AFCON as fans, not merely as spectators.
They have the 1994 African Footballer of the Year winner Amuneke to thank for that; a man who has sought to push boundaries at every turn, and who is now beating his own unique path in the modern game without fear.
Yet it has not been all plain sailing for the 1996 Olympic gold medallist and Uefa Pro License holder, the highest coaching qualification available, to get to his present standing in the game.
After initial success on the world stage with Nigeria’s under-17 team, first as assistant coach and then as the de facto helmsman in 2015 – a victory in Chile which was achieved despite his players travelling without kits to play in – there came a major setback at under-20 level.
At the centre of it was that familiar theme: negligence and a lack of respect on the part of the football authorities. “The lack of support, motivation and basic things a team requires had its effect on the team – in the end the failure was inevitable,” he told BBC Sport in 2016.
However, some insist that it could have been avoided. Facing a Sudan side that had advanced through the two previous rounds of qualifying on technicalities – Kenya had been disqualified after drawing the first leg, while Malawi withdrew – Nigeria were considered overwhelming favourites.
They lived up to that tag with a hard-fought, comeback 2-1 win in Omdurman, but it all went horribly awry in the home leg: with the pitch at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos sodden from pelting rain, Khaled Osman’s hat-trick saw Sudan win 4-3 and advance on away goals.
Amuneke was criticised heavily, in particular for failing to alter his tactics in conditions that were inimical to his side’s usual possession-heavy approach. However, the conditions in which he – unpaid for months – and his team had been forced to work convinced him it was time to explore his options beyond Nigeria.
A brief stint with Sudanese club SC Khartoum ended after eight games with mixed reviews due to the club’s financial difficulties, but apparently the Tanzania Football Federation (TFF) had seen enough. When they came calling, he had to be certain both parties were on the same page regarding the long-term direction and development of the national team.
After getting those assurances, Amuneke has set about putting Tanzanian football back on the map. The first step was qualifying for the AFCON, and doing so at the expense of Cape Verde who were ranked number one in Africa by FIFA just three years ago.
It is easy to forget, but Tanzania began the qualifying series with a potentially damaging draw at home against Lesotho before the 1994 AFCON winner came into the job. Even though Amuneke is indifferent to suggestions that he has been merely fortunate – “I don’t like to argue with people,” he says – it is something his detractors would do well to remember.
At the heart of this success is a man who has taken it upon himself to seek respect and recognition away from his comfort zone. While some of his former national team playing colleagues wait for appointments from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), his progression has been modelled after another: the late Stephen Keshi, who he has referred to as being “a father”.
The former Super Eagles coach made a name for himself when he improbably qualified unfancied Togo for a first-ever World Cup in 2006, causing Nigeria to sit up and take notice and earning him the respect (as a coach) he had not been afforded while in charge of the national under-20 team back in 2001.
Perhaps, in time, Amuneke might well return to manage the Nigeria national team like Keshi did, the child following in his father’s footsteps. It is a role he would not turn down, by his own admission, but for now his focus is very much on Tanzania and on “improving game by game”, not just the team, but himself.
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